As the struggle for democracy and humane living conditions in Iran continues, irreparable cracks begin to appear in the once seemingly unbreakable and undisturbed panorama of the Islamic Republic. The events leading to the tenth presidential election (12 June, 2009) and its aftermath, from the revelatory TV debates down to the mass demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, coupled with antiracist struggle of diverse ethnic groups and nationalities in Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Khuzistan, Turkmensahra and elsewhere, strip bare the realities of a country in the throes of political, economic, environmental and moral collapse. Amidst government brutality, the people’s struggle has unleashed refreshing debates and scrutinizing discussions hitherto unprecedented in the thirty-years-plus history of the Islamic Republic. Among other things, this resurgent oppositional discourse has transparently demonstrated the Islamic regime’s metamorphosis from theocracy to plutocracy, from the rule of ‘the jurisprudence’ to that of a dictator. For the first time, the majority of people in Iran, in the Middle East and the world are able to clearly see that the Islamic regime is not the heavenly image of piety, godliness and religious justice it falsely has been projecting of itself; they can now see this regime for what it is: a bricolage of power-hungry mullahs mixed with brutal security forces and greedy technocrats willing to commit any crime to maintain their positions of supremacy and privilege. Like a pack of hungry wolves, the core elements of the regime have now turned on each other: the supreme leader on his hand-picked president; the powerful Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (once considered as the second pillar of the Islamic Republic) against the supreme leader and his president; the Revolutionary Guards Corps (who now controls huge segments of the economy) against everyone else, and so forth. Regardless of how one may view the widening antagonism between the core elements of the regime, the fact remains that the people’s struggle is driving a wedge into the heart of Iran’s theocratic pantheon. Meanwhile, a democratic grassroots movement is emerging around gender equality, freedom of expression, secularism, antiracism, environmentalism and universal human rights.
Since the June 12, 2009 elections, the Islamic regime has been displaying the sheer cruelty and savagery of a brute force by which it rules the country. In hyperbole after hyperbole, the leaders of the regime have been pulling up the famous weapons of ‘national security’ and ‘territorial integrity’ to legitimize their gross violations of the basic human rights of Iran’s diverse populations. These are the most frequently used weapons in the arsenal of Iranian nationalism: to label the demonstrators as ‘agents of foreign governments’ and as ‘traitors to Iran’s territorial integrity.’ Since the post-election unrest, the official Iranian media have been showcasing various scenes of recanting and repenting on the part of supposedly captured members of the opposition. These ‘repenters’ confess colourful tales of how they were seduced and influenced by ‘the satanic west and its corrupt media’ to stage a ‘velvet revolution’ in Iran. In the current Islamic Republic of Iran, just as in the previous Pahlavi regime, notions such as ‘national security’ and ‘territorial integrity’ are used in conjunction with a ‘foreign influence’ discourse to silence the voice of dissent. These are always used as inseparable components of a discourse of Iranian nationalism not only by various government apparatuses but also by many Iranian nationalist scholars and intellectuals. They have been using these slogans to silence, criminalize and further marginalize two groups in particular: the traditional left and the human rights activists of non-Persian communities. In fact, the post-9/11 environment has greatly emboldened the dominant oppressive groups in many Muslim-majority societies to silence the voice of the other under the pretext of fighting terrorism on some occasions, and maintaining national security, territorial integrity, national identity,’ ‘national culture,’ official religion and official language, on others. In current Iranian cases, however, in addition to regular victims (the left and the non-Persians), the targets are also some members of the ruling elite who themselves have had their fair share of silencing others with these same fascistic weapons. In effect, they are now getting a taste of their own medicine.
NECROPHILIA versus BIOPHILIA
On June 20, 2009 a young woman named Neda Aqa Soltan was shot dead by the government forces. The scene of her tragic death was captured on camera and broadcast to the entire world. For millions of people throughout the world, young Neda’s death symbolized the fight between the Islamic regime’s necrophilia and the people’s desire for biophilia, for life, democracy and happiness. Neda’s tragic death soon came to symbolize the struggle of two important segments of Iranian population against theocracy: the youth and the female sex. Iranian youths and females have both been utterly oppressed by the regime ever since its inception in 1979. The regime’s infatuation with eschatology, with a culture of death, mourning, mortification, torture and necrophilia has found its logical expression in crippling and incapacitating signs and symptoms of growth, rejuvenation, happiness and joy—youth and youthfulness.
Having had one of the youngest populations in the world, Iran of the ayatollahs is increasingly becoming incapable of meeting the demands of its young and diverse citizens. As a result, it resorts to medieval forms of punishment and segregation to suppress, discipline and regulate the desire to life of its vibrant population. Therefore, it is no wonder to see women and the youth at the forefront of this struggle against theocracy. To this end, they have chosen a discourse of democracy and human rights vis-à-vis Khomeinism and fundamentalism. At its current embryonic stage, this discourse is fraught with limitations of all sorts. First and foremost, this discourse of biophilia needs to liberate itself from the narrow definitions of Iranian nationalism and be inclusive of not only progressive rights of women and sexual minorities, but also of Iran’s diverse multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural character. To this end, the dominant discourse and praxis of Iranian/Persian nationalism ought to be deconstructed, so that new spaces are opened for fresh articulations of democracy and human rights for all Iranians—not just for members of the Persian community.
THE GREENS vs THE GOVERNMENT: MUTATIS MUTANDIS?
There are many oxymoronic aspects to Iran’s ‘Islamic Republic.’ How can there be a modern, 21st century ‘Republic’ ruled by an absolute mullah with absolute powers? What kind of political rights and freedoms do the citizens of this so-called ‘Republic’ have if they cannot choose their own leaders? What kind of a republic is this where people have no say in choosing their own mode of dress, mode of speech, method of friendship, intimacy and sexual relations? Ayatollah Khomeini managed to silence many critics of his theocracy through his hotchpotch theory of ‘Velayat-e Faqih’ (the rule of an absolute Faqih/Ayatollah), where a supreme Ayatollah would preside over an Islamic Republic in which people presumably had the power to elect the president and members of the parliament—that is, after their candidacy and legitimacy were approved by what is referred to as ‘the Assembly of Experts,’ a bunch of mullahs handpicked by the supreme mullah! After Khomeini’s death in 1989, the mishmash and contradictory aspects of his theocracy turned into a source of struggle for power among powerful mullahs and various branches of the cleric establishment. On June 4th, 1989, Ali Khamenei became the supreme leader, replacing Khomeini. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and others were left with the leftover: the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of the polity. Having enjoyed his absolute power for over two decades, it has been speculated that Khamenei may be geared towards dismantling the Republican dimension of Iranian theocracy in its entirety: first, by getting rid of the presidency apparatus; second, by preparing perhaps the scene for his eldest son, Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, to take over after him. Hashemi Rafsanjani and his camp, on the other hand, are on the side of Republicanism. This camp also includes many elements of the now famous Green Movement.
Despite the increasing animosity between the two camps, many analysts do not see much difference amongst their constituent parts. To begin with, many elements of both camps consider themselves as devout followers of ‘Imam Khomeini,’ the founder of the Islamic Republic after the 1978-79 revolution. They both firmly believe in Khomeinism: a fundamentalist interpretation of Shi’ism mixed with Persian nationalism. They also share a disdain for secularism while believing in the maintenance of the Islamic Republic and its core principles such as the rule of jurisprudence, a militaristic sense of nationalism, and the privileged status of Persian identity as Iran’s only authentic national identity. In this respect, to many Iranians–and the non-Persian majority in particular– the choice between the two camps is a choice between Scylla and Charybdis.
PERSIAN NATIONALISM: AN OBSTACLE TO UNITY
While the phenomenon of Iranian nationalism has received some attention in recent years, its interpretation has been limited to two main areas: 1) the issue of ‘nuclear energy’ and how it has become a matter of ‘national pride’ for Iranians and their leaders; 2) the rhetoric of ‘foreign interference’ and ‘foreign involvement’ conspiracy theory used by the government to tarnish its opposition’s image. There can be no question that these are important aspects of Iranian nationalism. There, however, is a third dimension to this nationalism that is entirely absent from the current discourse: the dominant hegemonic discourse of Persian nationalism and its role in regulating politics and practices of identity in Iran.
Persian nationalism is an aggressive ethnic nationalism that masquerades under the general rubric of ‘Iranian nationalism.’ This so-called ‘Iranian nationalism’ is deeply engrained with identity politics. Ever since the establishment of modern Iranian nation-state in the mid-1920s, the identity of Persian ethnic group, comprising about 37% of the total population of Iran, has been adopted by successive Iranian governments as the only authentic and legitimate identity of an extremely multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural Iran. The aggressive implementation of ‘Persian nationalism’ in multi-national Iran goes back to early 1920s, when an army trooper named Reza Khan staged a coup d’état against the ruling Qajar Dynasty, and having overthrown it, came to consolidate his rule in accordance with the ideology of Persian nationalism: the officialization of ‘Persian language,’ Persian culture and Persian identity on one hand, and foreignization/monsterization of all other languages, cultures and narratives, on the other. These ‘Othererd’ communities comprise over 70% of Iran’s population.
Much of the scholarship focusing on democracy and human rights in Iran fails to provide a comprehensive analysis on these topics for one main reason: neglecting the oppressive role of Persian nationalism. Persian nationalism normally masquerades under ‘Iranian nationalism’ and includes at least three different, and at times seemingly oppositional, strata: 1) the intelligentsia linked to the ruling government; 2) the intelligentsia (and intellectuals) linked to groups in opposition to the ruling regime; 3) the so-called ‘independent/impartial’ intellectuals.
PERSIAN NATIONALISM’S ‘GOVERNING INTELLIGENTSIA’
In the context of Iranian/Persian nationalism, the Governing Intelligentsia refers to all custodians and maintainers of ‘official knowledge,’ ‘official culture,’ ‘official history,’ ‘official language,’ and ‘official identity.’ This stratum includes all or most individuals and the intelligentsia working in various ideological state apparatuses, e.g., the education system, the national/official media and press, ministries of culture, national heritage, and their numerous offshoots. While there may exist some degree of differences of opinion among different individuals in these institutions, when it comes to human rights issues and the rights of Iran’s marginalized communities, there is striking similarity between their approach and that of the ruling regime of which they are a part.
In effect, they all form what Louis Althusser has called ‘ideological apparatuses’ of the ruling group. These ideological apparatuses view human rights demands of racialized and marginalized communities as suspicious and help to suppress them under the pretext of maintaining ‘the national security’ and ‘territorial integrity’ of the country. Suppression of ethnic-based demands takes place under the pretext of fighting the so-called ‘foreign elements’ seeking to break up Iran. In short, the minority rights activists are seen as spies and agents of foreign governments. As a matter of fact, the official branch of Persian nationalism has time and again clarified that issues pertaining to ethnic diversity and human rights concerns of the non-Persian communities are not normal socio-political and cultural issues open to debate; they are a matter of Iran’s national security that have always been dealt through the security organs of the Islamic republic.
A clear example of resorting to ‘foreign elements’ factor to suppress human rights demands of the marginalized communities was manifested in the way the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei interpreted the Azerbaijani anti-racist resistance in the wake of events following the publication of racist cartoons in May 2006. In an address to Iran’s parliament on May 28, 2006, instead of addressing the grievances and demands of a subaltern community whose members were depicted as cockroaches in an official newspaper, the supreme leader labelled the victims of this racism as ‘agents of foreign governments.’ The labelling of minority rights activists as foreign elements is an old notion that has been used by the dominant group for the past 80 years in Iran. Not only the officials and government authorities have consistently used this and similar labels, many individuals, writers, and intellectuals outside the governing circles have also been using such labels to discredit the legitimate demands for racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious equality in the country.
PERSIAN NATIONALISM’S ‘OPPOSITIONAL INTELLIGENTSIA’
In an Iranian context, the ‘Oppositional Intelligentsia’ includes the majority of political organizations, groups and individuals who are openly opposed to the current Islamic government and seek to replace it with their desired political system. Interestingly enough, when it comes to issues of diversity and ethnic/linguistic equality in the country, the majority of these groups and organizations not only take stances similar to those of the ruling regime but some of them even exhibit racist and undemocratic tendencies much more repressive and reactionary than those of the current government.
For instance, when back in 2003 some government officials entertained the possibility of decentralizing the design of school curriculum in the country so that it would reflect some aspects of non-Persian local cultures and environments, many nationalist oppositional groups and intellectuals found such an initiative treacherous and identified the officials involved as ‘traitors to Iran’s territorial integrity.’ A glaring case in point was the position of a well-established political organization named Iran’s National Front (Jebhe-ye Melli-ye Iran). By way of an open letter, this organization warned the authorities that such a decision “can be interpreted as an attack on Iran’s territorial integrity and on the roots of the existence of the great Iranian nation” (Asgharzadeh, 2007, p. 145).
PERSIAN NATIONALISM’S ‘INDEPENDENT INTELLIGENTSIA’
The so-called ‘Independent Intelligentsia’ includes elites and intellectuals who may not support any particular political group but who have strong sense of allegiance to ‘the nation,’ ‘the homeland,’ its culture, identity, etc. Using a notion of ‘methodological nationalism,’ they contribute to silencing and misrepresentation of the subaltern stratum, and in so doing commit epistemic violence against marginalized and oppressed communities. For instance, an academic and writer named Javad Sheikhol-islami may be considered a representative of such intelligentsia. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988), this gentleman kept reminding the government authorities that under no condition should the regime refrain from supplanting the languages of non-Persian communities by Farsi. In fact, he considered the Iran-Iraq war as a positive occurrence in that the war had provided Persians with ample opportunity to take in homeless Arabic-speaking Khuzistani children and teach them “proper Farsi” (Asgharzadeh, 2007, p. 147).
Another clear example of this kind of so-called ‘impartial’ Iranian intellectuals and their animosity with human rights demands of the non-Persian communities was illustrated in an open letter to Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi, one of the presidential candidates in June 2009 elections, published on June 9th, 2009. In response to the flexibility shown on the part of Mr Karroubi to the human rights demands of non-Persian communities, over one-hundred scholars and elites of Iranian universities showered him with derogatory labels such as “extremely irresponsible,” “ill-informed about the authentic identity of Iranian nation,” “against Iran’s national interest and national security,” paying attention to “reactionary and deviant tribal issues” and so on and so forth (Bayaaniyye-ye E’terazi, 2010).
Paralleling the suppression of non-Persian communities inside Iran, the Persian nationalists abroad use every opportunity to misrepresent the identity, language, culture, even the size and number of non-Persian communities in Iran. For instance, “Ethnologue: Languages of the World” is an international resource pertaining to world’s languages. Its publishers have been under intense pressure by Iranian nationalists to reduce the size of Iran’s non-Persian communities to the advantage of the Persian ethnic group. In a recent Open Letter to the site’s manager, many scholars and human rights activists from non-Persian communities complained about this issue and expressed their hope “that the editors and researchers of Ethnologue will not cave in to various ultranationalist bullying, and will not allow Ethnologue’s scholarly reputation to be tarnished by ideologically motivated hyperboles”.
The letter warned the Ethnologue editors that:
“Care must be taken that in estimating the number of each ethnic community, the views of local community leaders, scholars, and human rights activists are taken into full account. In particular, an objective researcher must be cognizant to the fact that, due to lack of respect for human rights and the rights of minorities in Iran, both ruling governments and many scholars of the dominant group have always presented a distorted view regarding the size and status of minoritized communities in the country.” (Azerbaijani Scholars’ Letter, 2009).
These so-called ‘impartial’ nationalist intellectuals continue to defend and safeguard a host of what Michel Foucault has called “the regimes of truth.” In a Foucauldian sense, these are discursive constructs about the supposed ‘truth’ that discipline and regulate individuals’ behaviour in various societies and environments. In an Iranian context, these ‘regimes of truth’ include aspects such as:
· ‘Persio-centrism’: an unwavering defence of the supremacy and ‘superiority’ of Persian ethnic group throughout Iran;
· Demonization of the Non-Persian Other: a firm commitment to erase, demonize and monsterize histories, identities, languages and even size and numbers of non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran;
· Invisibilization of Persian nationalism and its pervasive hegemony: stubbornly insisting that there is not and there has never been such a thing as ‘Persian nation,’ Persian nationalism, ‘Persian ethnic group’ and even ‘Persian ethnicity’ in Iran. We are all Iranians; have always been and will always be!
This former case is a reminiscence of the invisibility of whiteness in Euro-western contexts: whereas all non-whites are identified as ‘people of colour;’ it is only the whites who do not seem to possess any colour. Being rooted in histories of privilege and injustice, the white skin colour has gained the status of colourlessness/invisibility. Critical gay/lesbian/queer studies have shed similar light on heterosexuality and homosexuality binarism. Whereas heterosexuality is taken to be the norm and hence needless of definition and identification; homosexuality is seen as a visible identity, and an ‘abnormal’ one at that. Similarly, Fars/Persian identity has masqueraded itself under the generic term Iranian, a category which is defined based on Persian language and identity but at the same time one that renders ‘Persian identity’ invisible. These nationalist scholars working from both inside Iran and abroad use various outlets such as Iranian/Middle Eastern studies journals, newspapers, the satellite TV and the internet to propagate their ideology.
In addition to above factors, Persian nationalism utilizes the services of a host of colonialist/Orientalist facilities abroad. The colonial and imperialist forces have supported the oppressive Persian nationalism in at least two distinct areas: discursive/ideological and physical/practical. Physical and practical legacy of imperialism can be manifested through such acts as the bloody suppression and overthrow of autonomous governments of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in 1946; and also through the infamous coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.
Discursive/ideological legacy of imperialism is translated into acts of racism and exclusion based on an interpretation of ‘Iran as the land of Aryans;’ rendition of narratives in support of the ‘superiority of Aryan race’ thesis; equation of Persian ethnic group with ‘Aryan race;’ identification of Persian language as an Aryan and hence superior language; doxological ideas about ‘Cyrus the Great’ and a supposedly marvellous pre-Islamic ancient civilization of Iran; propagation and teaching of Orientalist historiography where Iranian is used synonymously with Persian and where Afro-Asiatic, Semitic and other non-Indo-European traits of Iran’s history are erased.
THE CUL-DE-SAC: UNITY IN DIVERSITY
Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1978-79 Islamic revolution, successfully managed to bring diverse communities of difference under the rallying cry of ‘one Islamic community’ –an umma- unified against the real or imagined enemies of Islam and Iran. Hence his all too often repeated catchphrase in a uniquely Persian accent: “Hamah baa ham/All-Together.” What this Islamic panacea meant was that ‘we are all the same and should constitute a unified community as the Iranian nation.’ While Iran’s communities of difference, for the most part, bought into this rhetoric of unity, the practical aspect of solidarity found its expression in every community’s submission to demands and requirements of Persian nationalism. That kind of Khomeinist call for unity was inimical to difference. It was also very different than the all too familiar notion of ‘one for all, all for one’, in that, in Khomeini’s version of unity and solidarity everyone was for Persian nationalism and Persian nationalism was for no one! Khomeini’s notion of unity, however, has outlived its usefulness. Commitment to this kind of superficial unity showed that a blind dedication to solidarity can easily subsume difference and suffocate diversity under a single group’s national-fascism. Learning from this experience, Iran’s non-Persian communities have now reached a degree of political maturity to pose their collective demands from the standpoint of their own human rights and to make their participation in any kind of solidarity with the dominant Persian group conditional to this group’s acknowledgement of the basic human rights of non-Persian communities: e.g., condemnation of Persian/Aryanist racism; acknowledgment of linguistic, cultural and spiritual freedom for non-Persian communities; commitment to social justice in such areas as cultural and historical representation, linguistic and religious equality, equality in allocation of economic resources and opportunities for different regions of the country, and so forth.
In Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (2005) show the degree to which Michel Foucault was deceived by the initial gestures of Khomeini’s Shiism, erroneously thinking that political Islam would offer better conditions for marginalized groups in general, and the sexual minorities in particular. How naïve this Foucauldian assumption was, is self-explanatory. Just as a much more mature Foucault came to regret his naive assumptions about ‘the political Islam,’ so too have Iran’s diverse racialized and marginalized communities. The emergent antagonism between and amongst various social forces in Iran has tarnished the sacred mantra of the Islamic rule and is shifting the pendulum of public opinion against theocracy and in favour of democracy.
What is needed is a commitment to diversity, transsectionality, intersectionality, and an understanding of the interlocking nature of systems of oppression. Sites such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, language, religion, geography, citizenship, and so forth have been working with and through each other to produce and reproduce oppression. Those Iranian/Persian intellectuals who studiously avoid discussions of difference and diversity can hardly touch the surface of oppressive and exclusionary power relationships in contemporary Iran. They are likely to offer at best partial, at worst misleading contributions to the struggle for democracy. Their constant talk of democracy and human rights are nothing more than ideological slogans serving as a façade for power and privilege. Iran’s Islamic regime has been the archetype that has influenced all subsequent fundamentalisms. A dismantling of such archetypical fundamentalism would strike a crushing blow to all fundamentalist movements and fascistic tendencies. The conundrum, thus far unanswered, is to see why the non-Persian communities are not willing to join the dominant Persian group in putting an end to Iran’s theocracy. This is the cul-de-sac all the paths end into: unity in diversity. The challenge is to see how this unity can be achieved without subsuming difference and suffocating diversity.
First published pensouthazerbaijan.info.